“Full Week Faith” or “Will There Be Faith?”

I’ve just been checking out Karen Bellavance-Grace’s white paper “Full Week Faith: Rethinking Religious Education and Faith Formation Ministries for Twenty-First Century Unitarian Universalists.” If you read it, I think you’ll find that this paper is a pretty good summary of the debates that have been going on within Unitarian Universalism regarding the role of religious education. And that’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because Bellavance-Grace summarizes the debates nicely, and offers a positive way forward. It’s a weakness because the Unitarian Universalist conversation on religious education has gotten pretty narrow, and has not paid attention to a wider international, interfaith conversation about the role of religious education.

While reading Bellavance-Grace’s paper, I’ve also been reading Thomas Groome’s latest book, Will There Be Faith? and it’s worth making a brief comparison of the two.

Both writers are committed to religious education that is grounded in the experience of learners. But Groome goes further than Bellavance-Grace, and he says that it’s not enough talk about “experience,” because that doesn’t do full justice to the ability of learners to take charge of their own learning. Drawing on Paolo Friere’s work, Groome says he prefers the word “praxis,” by which he means real-world practical action that is more than social service or band-aid charity. As a left-wing Catholic, Groome stands to the left of Bellavance-Grace, particularly in his insistence that children should be active participants in their own learning, and in his insistence that doing education with children can (and should) effect real change in the wider society. So it’s great that Bellavance-Grace continues to be committed to the tradition of experience in education, as set forth by John Dewey a century ago, and it’s great that she updates it for the postmodern era. But Groome is in that same tradition, and he elaborates on Dewey using the insights of Paolo Friere, and then he takes it even further using his own shared praxis model. I find Bellavance-Grace to be a little too conservative for my tastes; Groome’s insistence of the preferential option for the poor, his insistence on the need to seriously challenge the world around us — I find these more in line with what my religious convictions demand of me.

Both writers are committed to educating children into a faith tradition. Groome explicitly acknowledges the insights of John Westerhof, who, at the first rumblings of postmodernism in the 1970s, was one of the first religious educators to point out the new need to explicitly teach children how to be a part of a faith tradition. Bellavance-Grace does not explicitly acknowledge Westerhof, but his influence is clear on her work. Both Bellavance-Grace and Groome come up with similar pedagogical approaches to educating children in faith — Bellavance-Grace calls her approach “experilearn,” and Groome calls his “life to Faith to life.” — and both these approaches emphasize the connection between the life of faith and the rest of the world. But Groome’s pedagogy is much more fully developed, and has a more practical orientation. Also, because his pedagogy is grounded in Friere, there’s a much stronger sense of how reflection and praxis are intertwined; you don’t just learn something then move on, you engage in the world, reflect on your engagement, then engage again, reflect again, and so on for a lifetime. Since I’m a working religious educator, I find Groome’s practical and more fully developed pedagogy to be far more useful.

So Bellavance-Grace and Groome are pretty close in terms of their educational philosophy, and either or both would be useful to Unitarian Universalist parents and religious educators. Unfortunately, many Unitarian Universalists will be turned off by Groome simply because he is a Christian and a Catholic; so many Unitarian Universalists still wear the blinders of anti-Christian and/or anti-Catholic prejudice (and I’ve never quite understood why John Roberto gets a pass from Unitarian Universalists when other Christian religious educators don’t). But while Bellavance-Grace’s paper is quite useful, I think she just doesn’t go far enough; and in the end she advocates a kind of top-down approach driven more by religious professionals than by parents and kids. Groome’s shared praxis approach takes us beyond John Dewey; I think he has a better grasp of the postmodern context; he offers lots more sound practical advice, advice for the grass-roots which will work for religious professionals, parents, and even for kids.

Yes, Bellavance-Grace represents state-of-the-art Unitarian Universalist religious education; she has nicely distilled current cutting-edge Unitarian Universalist religious education practice. The problem is that Unitarian Universalist religious educators are behind the times, and if we want to catch up, we’re going to have to look beyond our narrow borders.

Pushkes and the UUSC

Amy, the senior minister at our church, had to tell me what a pushke is. “Pushke” is a Yiddish word for a little box that you keep in your house into which you can place money that is to be donated to charity. I didn’t grow up Jewish, and we just called them money boxes; but I think pushke is a much better word.

Up until this year, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee used to send out little boxes to support their Guest at Your Table program. Every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, families would come to Sunday services, pick up their Guest at Your Table box — their Guest at Your Table pushke, if you will — and bring it home to put on their kitchen table. Then during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas or New Year’s Day, kids were supposed to put a little money in the box each day. Towards the end of December, families would count up the money they had deposited in the box and the grown-ups would add something to round it up to the nearest ten or twenty dollar mark. On the Sunday before Christmas, all the families would bring their pushkes full of money to be collected at the service, and the congregation would send it all to the UUSC.

This year, the UUSC decided it wasn’t going to send out Guest at Your Table boxes any more. I can understand why they made this decision. Each of those boxes must cost the UUSC a dollar or so; better to spend money on helping people, rather than on Guest at Your Table boxes.

However, I found an interesting informational paper written by Jennifer Noparstak, a graduate student of social work at the University of Michigan. She writes that in the Jewish tradition, pushkes help teach young people about giving and philanthropy. Pushkes teach the importance of anonymous donations: “Anonymous donation maintains a dignified relationship between those who are giving and those who are receiving aid.” Pushkes teach the importance of community in giving: “[The pushke] is also important because it signifies a community effort to aid people who need it and may not be able to ask for it directly. The pushke serves as a means for each member of a household to contribute, both children and adults alike, fostering the importance of giving among all age groups.” And, perhaps most importantly, pushkes cultivate the habit of charitable giving: ” It is considered more credible to develop a habit of giving regularly rather than giving large sums infrequently.”

Here in our congregation, we decided that even though the UUSC isn’t going to make Guest at Your Table boxes any more, it was important for us to provide Guest at Your Table pushkes for our families. Our Guest at Your Table Coordinator, Beth Nord, found plain white gift boxes that are the same size as the old Guest at Your Table boxes (look for 4x4x4″ gift boxes, sometimes sold as gift boxes for coffee mugs; Beth bought ours at Michaels, an arts-and-crafts chain store). We printed out images from the UUSC, sized so they would fit onto the sides of the pushkes — like this:


You cut out the four pictures, take one of the plain white gift boxes, glue one picture to each of the four sides, cut a slot in the top for money, and there you have it — your very own Guest at Your Table pushke. Here’s one in the process of being made:


This morning during the service, Amy explained where the Guest at Your Table money goes to, while I showed how to make a pushke. After each service, kids came with great enthusiasm to pick up boxes and pictures to take home so they could make their own pushkes. This is the most enthusiasm I’ve ever seen for the Guest at Your Table program!

So the UUSC gets to save money, our kids are more enthusiastic about the Guest at Your Table program, and we continue to provide pushkes to help teach kids about giving anonymously, giving communally, and getting in the habit of giving a little bit every day to charity.

Academics and practitioners

A few days ago on the “Key Resources” blog, a blog about faith formation from Virginia Theological Seminary blog, Kyle Oliver asked: “What has the academy to do with congregational faith formation (and vice versa)?”

What prompted this question? Kyle had been at the recent annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA), which is supposed to be an organization of scholars and practitioners. But he had not been convinced that the REA offers much to practitioners: “I wasn’t entirely convinced of the value of the conference for a non-academically-aspiring faith formation minister in a congregation.”

Speaking as a minister of religious education, I agree with Kyle that the academics, not the practitioners, dominate the conference. Two examples of what I mean when I say the academics dominate: (1) At the 2011 conference, I went to an excellent workshop given by Ryan Gardner on teacher reflection for volunteer teachers; it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet only two other people showed up, one of whom admitted she was in the wrong workshop (she stayed anyway, bless her heart). (2) At this year’s conference, I went to a good workshop given by Tom Groome on practical approaches to pedagogy for the local congregation; again, it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet the conversation got taken over at a couple of points by academics who wanted to argue rather obscure theoretical points. At the same time, all the academics whom I met were sympathetic to practitioners; some of them appeared to be pleased when they found out I actually worked in a congregation with real, live children and youth. I don’t think the academics want to dominate the REA conference.

Some of the problem may lie in the realities that we religious education practitioners face these days. When I started working as a religious educator in the Boston area, back in 1994, it was commonplace for some of the older religious educators to talk about how they studied with Robert Kegan, James Fowler, Tom Groome, and other scholars. Back then it was also commonplace for lay Directors of Religious Education to have a full-time, well-compensated job; there were many more Ministers of Religious Education; congregations expected us to take time to study and keep up with the field. That’s no longer true. As staff costs for congregations outpace inflation, as organized religion declines in an era of civic disengagement, as society changes rapidly around us, as congregations need more from us and are able to offer less to us — as all this goes on, many of us who work in local congregations feel overwhelmed as we try to do more and more with less and less, as we try to keep kids engaged, as we try to hold on to our jobs and our pay.

As a result, when we practitioners go to any kind of conference, we’re usually looking for relentlessly useful ideas that we can use right now. We’re desperate. John Roberto of Faith Formation 2020 gets this; he gives us practitioners what we need in easily digestible bites. At the recent REA conference, I think Beth Katz of Project Interfaith intuited some of this; she showed us excellent and innovative curricula that were both immediately useful and grounded in interesting theoretical perspectives. Mind you, Katz and Roberto are not exactly academics, though they are academically informed. One academic who gets this is Bob Pazmino: I talked with Bob informally at the recent REA conference, and he not only asked me about what was going on in my congregation, and listened carefully and respectfully, but he was able to present me with some interesting possibilities for new directions based on his academic work.

In short, I think Kyle Oliver is correct when he says that he’s not “entirely convinced of the value of the REA conference” for most of us practitioners. I think the academics might want to pay more attention to Kyle’s critique, and think about how they might better unite their theory with our practical realities.

I would also say that we practitioners have to remember that our praxis should be informed with theory. Perhaps it’s time to get a little more assertive, as Kyle is doing, and help the academics pay better attention to what’s going on in our local congregations.

Happy (belated) National Adoption Day

Yesterday was National Adoption Day, a day to celebrate those people who adopt children for all the right reasons. I’m thinking especially of M. and O. who are in the adoption process right now. Adoption can be a long process, with lots of bureaucratic hurdles. All those hurdles are designed to protect the interests of the children, but they sound like very challenging hurdles to me. I have a lot of admiration for those good-hearted adults who are willing to jump those hurdles, and welcome deserving children into loving homes.

So here’s to you, adoptive parents!

Snow and dialect

On the last morning of my trip back east, it started snowing. I hadn’t seen snow falling for more than four years, not since we moved to the San Francisco Bay area. I got that familiar, mesmerized, contemplative feeling that you get when you watch snow falling; and almost immediately the worry kicked in: will this affect driving? will my flight be delayed? are my shoes waterproofed? Fortunately the snow stopped after about ten minutes, leaving no accumulation: I got the pleasure of seeing it without all the discomfort that goes along with snow.

While I was in the Boston area, it was interesting to again speak in what the linguists call Eastern New England dialect — popularly known as a “Boston accent,” though really there are several Boston accents which are a subset of Eastern New England dialect, and actually my accent is west of Boston, with a does of New Bedford from my time living there. Whatever my accent, or the accent of the natives I talked with, I found it’s much easier for me to communicate when speaking Eastern New England dialect, and I realized I always feel there’s always something missing when I have to speak American Standard English, that bastard dialect of television and movies that lacks subtlety and emotional nuance.

REA 2013 conference: teaching religion and good citizenship

“We need to cross borders and join forces for a more humane world,” said Seibren Miedema in his President’s Address during the final plenary session of the 2013 Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference. Miedema is professor emeritus at Vrije Universiteit (Free University), Amersterdam, Netherlands, and president of the REA.

“Learning to work, to live, to play together should be possible,” he said, “and should start in early childhood.”

When Miedema was goring up in the Netherlands in the 1950s, the society was “pillarized”; that is, everyone living in a given Dutch town tended to belong to the same church. I happened to sit next to him during the pre-conference session, and he said then that he didn’t really encounter anyone from a different denomination (let alone a completely different faith tradition) until he was in his teens. In his President’s Address, he said that pillarization began to break down in the 1960s, as society changed rapidly and people of different faiths began engaging in, e.g., social justice work together.

Coming from that Dutch background, Miedema now believes that state-sponsored schools can and should play a crucial role in fostering inter-religious dialogue. He spoke about “the impact of the schools’ contribution, in terms of the selected subject matter and of the arrangement of pedagogical relations and situations by the professionals, on the personal identity formation of students.”

Miedema said he agrees with the position that the “binding role” of religion in society is of “utmost importance” and “should not be neglected.” This position is opposed to the official position in, e.g., France. Miedema reminded us that John Dewey, one of the intellectual founders of the REA, believed that schools should cultivate the religious side of children. Continue reading “REA 2013 conference: teaching religion and good citizenship”

REA 2013 conference: a mentor, practitioners, and list of resources

Some of the best parts of attending a conference like the Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference are the informal conversations.

During one of yesterday’s plenary sessions, I realized I was sitting a couple of rows behind Bob Pazmino, perhaps my most important religious education mentor, especially given his focus on the practice of teaching. I looked for Bob during one of the breaks, and even though I hadn’t been his student since 1999, he still remembered me. We had a good long talk, and I got to hear about his grandchildren, and his research, and so on. And, like a good mentor, he drew me out on some of the challenges I’m facing in my praxis as a religious educator, and helped me to see how when educating for social justice in a predominantly white, predominantly middle class community, one has to be aware of the possible shame that such education can generate among people who are relatively well-off. And awareness of the possibility of shame should, of course, affects one’s pedagogical strategies.

During the annual meeting, someone brought up the point that this conference was heavily tilted towards the interests of scholars, rather than practitioners. (I wrote down his name, but unfortunately lost that slip of paper.) I grabbed him after the meeting, and speaking as a practitioner myself, thanked him for raising that point. Chuck Chesnavage came up and said much the same thing. We floated the idea of some kind of practitioner’s meeting at the next conference.

Finally, in several informal conversations I got lots of recommendations for books and resources and ideas I should follow up on. Here are some of them:
— Book: Practicing Discernment with Youth, by Dan White
— Resource: Association for Practical Theology
— Books: in relation to practical theology, Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s work
— Idea: Elizabeth Caldwell had children retell and illustrate Bible stories, which she then published in book form using online self-publishing tools
— Book: Practical Theology and Qualitative Research by John Swinton and Harriet Mowat

REA 2013 conference: Tom Groome and a pedagogy for teaching religion

For the Sunday morning breakout session at the Religious Education Association conference, I attended Tom Groome’s workshop titled (somewhat mysteriously) “Teaching to ‘Learn From’ Religious Traditions.”

Groome began by asking the question: How do you go about teaching religion in the schools? What is an appropriate pedagogy? He said he wanted a pedagogy that could work in either a public school or a private school, with diverse student populations, a pedagogy in which one could teach any given religious tradition without proselytizing.

More specifically, he wanted to teach religion such that students would become better people within their own tradition (or within their lack of religious tradition). He told a story about a Muslim student named Mohammed who had been in his class on Catholicism at Boston College. Groome told Mohammed that he wanted him to become a better Muslim through learning about Catholicism from his Catholic professor. Some years later Mohammed told Groom that indeed he had become a better Muslim because of that class. This is Groome’s ideal for teaching religion in the schools.

Groome said that they Enlightenment gave us two option: we could learn about religion, or we could learn to become part of a given religion. These two options come, in part, from Katn’s distinction between pure and practical reason. However, Groome takes seriously the feminist eopistemologists who pointed out the objective viewpoint of Kant’s pure reason does not really exist — “there is no view from nowhere.” Thus Groome proposes a third option on which to base an appropriate pedagogy: to learn from religions for your own life.

In other words, Groome called for a pedagogy that would teach religions as “great spiritual wisdoms for life,” rather than presenting them as data or history. “They’re not just a cognitive exercise,” he said, but rather a way for students to learn from other traditions in order to enrich their own traditions.

As an example, he spoke about how one might teach about the Muslim practice of Zakat; this is the practice of giving away 2-1/2% of one’s capital each year to persons in need. This spiritual practice not only promotes charity, it also promotes non-attachment to material goods, and it teaches about the ultimate power of God (i.e., it is God who really owns whatever material possessions one has). Groome said if he were teaching Zakat, he might begin be having the students name what they know about people who are in need, and then teach them Zakat as one religious response to poverty and need. “The learning outcome,” he said, “is that you’re going to encourage their own discernment about poverty.”

The workshop participants engaged in lively discussion with Groome.

There was some discussion about Groome’s theoretical underpinnings for his pedagogy, and one participant (I didn’t get his name) could not agree with Groome’s tendency towards universalism, i.e., that there is a common thread running through all religions. However, after some discussion it seemed clear that even people like me who tend to follow Mark Heim and Stephen Prothero in asserting that religions do not have a universal end or goal could still effectively use Groome’s pedagogical approach.

I asked about assessing learning outcomes, and Groome acknowledged that you can’t test or assess for the student’s own feeling — i.e., you can’t assess whether they have become, or will become, more humane — but you can test them for the data. However, pedagogy need not be driven completely by assessment.

Catherine Owens of Episcopal Divinity School pointed out that so many young adults today are unaffiliated, and having no grounding in any religious tradition, they are “appropriating bits and pieces from religions” (I would be blunt, and say they are often misappopriating) to build their own spiritual life. Therefore, part of what we need to do is to, as it were, expose them to the real thing.

I was sitting next to Kevin Sandberg, and in the time for small group discussion he suggested a “pedagogy of friendship” to supplement Groome’s pedagogy. I liked this formulation, and am thinking about how one might teach using a “pedagogy of friendship.”